Skip to main content

How to build the world's first underground park

The Lowline is an oasis in an abandoned trolley terminal, and it's closer to reality than ever

Share this story

Amelia Krales

James Ramsey is brimming with confidence. He says so as he gazes at the lush, undulating mini-forest he helped build in the middle of an empty warehouse in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Lowline Lab, as it is called — two small hills of ferns and flowers, draped in ivy, bisected by a gravel path, and soaked in sunlight from a sweeping canopy of interlocking aluminum panels — is meant to serve as proof-of-concept for Ramsey’s ultimate vision: the Lowline, the world’s first underground park.

If everything goes as planned, Ramsey and his partners will soon get approval from the city and the MTA to build their park in an abandoned trolley terminal that sits alongside the Essex Street subway station. They will clear out the rusty equipment, paint over the decades-old graffiti, build a wall against the active train track, and then get down to the real work: horticulture.

Philodendrons, dwarf snake plants, spiderworts, nettles, and Spanish moss are just some of the varieties of flora that will flourish in the Lowline. Sunlight will be captured on rooftops surrounding the submerged park using technology Ramsey first conceptualized while building satellites for NASA. The entire thing will cover 60,000 square feet, or over an acre of space, and, in Ramsey’s eyes, will be something that utterly transforms the neighborhood.

"It’s at the heart of the Lower East Side, the meeting point of five different ethnicities," Ramsey says. "The entire neighborhood above it was literally knocked down in the ’70s. So I think this is an opportunity to begin to knit back together a tear in the urban fabric."

Not that the abandoned trolley terminal, which opened the same time as the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, is a neighborhood blight. In fact, it's in pretty decent shape right now. The station served elevated lines and trolley cars from Brooklyn, but closed in 1948 when trolley service was discontinued, and has been empty ever since. Indeed, a video tour produced by the MTA in 2011 notes the agency is "looking very closely at alternative uses for generating revenue." The Lowline has been building buzz since, and is the first well-financed proposal for the space that the MTA has heard since it started shopping around for ideas.

At NASA, Ramsey was part of the team that created the Pluto Fast Flyby and the Cassini satellites. And as principal of his own design firm, he renovated the lofts and apartments of New York's wealthiest residents. Many of those same clients are now donors and supporters of the Lowline.

Whether a multi-million-dollar underground arboretum backed by real estate developers and hedge fund managers can help "knit back together" a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood like the Lower East Side is up for debate. Opinions are divided. The Architect’s Newspaper gushes the Lowline could be "the next park phenomenon," while The Awl derisively calls it "an atrium, an event space, and another example of our lowered expectations for the city."

But for now, the Lowline is still just a dream. Ramsey and his partners still need to overcome a series of Sisyphean hurdles before they can even break ground. The deadline for submissions for the city’s "request for expressions of interest" is February 1st, but the Lowline team has yet to submit its bid. (Over a dozen bids have already been submitted.) Inside sources told The Verge that government officials are skeptical the Lowline will become a defining part of the city like its aerial inspiration the High Line, an elevated railway along the city’s West Side that was converted into a park and enjoys tremendous popularity. They wonder whether the Lowline will be a once-and-done kind of attraction.

The Lowline team, which also includes former Google strategist Dan Barasch, also needs to sweet talk members of the community, many of whom are not happy about a bunch of rich people trying to build a fancy plant museum in middle of their gritty neighborhood. ("That took us by surprise," says Ramsey, who apparently has never tried to build anything in New York City before.) So while all that happens, this miniature version, literally one-fiftieth of the entire park, will help whet the appetite of all those who dream of an underground oasis.

The entire Lowline is reportedly expected to cost between $44 million and $77 million to build, and $2 million to $4 million annually to operate. Ramsey says they hope to break ground in 2016, and officially open in 2020. They are still figuring out details like concessions, hours of operation, and ways to connect the park to nearby amenities like Essex Crossing, a 1.65 million-square-foot mixed use real estate project being built on the south side of Delancey Street.

They are also wrestling with definitions. The Lowline will not be a good place for barbecues, baseball games, or other activities traditionally associated with parks, nor will it be funded by the city, so its status as a public space is open to debate. It will be more akin to a botanical garden, Ramsey admits, where the plants are meant to be admired, not picnicked upon and, for a neighborhood like the Lower East Side that is extremely short on green space, can feel like a cop-out.

But first, the technology behind the Lowline deserves closer examination. Large, tracking mirrors called heliostats are mounted on the roof and direct sunlight into curved, mirrored surfaces that focus the rays into a concentrated beam 30 times the brightness of the sun. Those beams are piped underground, where they converge at a point in the ceiling and then are reflected back against the cascading circus tent of aluminum panels that hang over the plantlife like a canopy. This diffuses the light so the plants aren’t flame-broiled.

At this point in the tour, Ramsey is distracted by an accumulation of spiderwebs dangling from one of the ceiling mirrors. "Oh look, we have spiders," he says wistfully. "Nature, uh, finds a way." Pause. "Jeff Goldblum."

What would Dr. Ian Malcolm, Goldblum’s character from Jurassic Park, have to say about trying to grow a jungle in an abandoned trolley station? After all, it isn’t nature so much as engineering that makes something like the Lowline possible. Take the undulating terrain: engineers designed it to ensure those plants that needed the most light could be elevated closer to the light-generating canopy. Also, it looks really freaking cool. "Aesthetically," Ramsey says, "I wanted to create this post-apocalyptic cavescape kind of effect, with these dripping stalactites of greenery."

They are following the High Line playbook, building political support while raising cash from wealthy residents, some of whom had their lofts designed by Ramsey and want to see what he can do with an abandoned trolley station. But while Ramsey is "brimming with confidence," the Lowline is by no means a done deal. Any number of obstacles or disasters could crop up. The MTA could pull the plug. The cash flow could dry up. The community could rebel.

"This is a fucking ungodly amount of work," Ramsey admits. "I’ve literally been designing this thing for seven years, and we’re scrambling. It’s intense."

Photos: Amelia Krales

Lowline Lab New York photos


Built in 1903 and abandoned in 1948, the Williamsburg Trolley Terminal was the destination for streetcars that carried passengers from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge. It is 1.5 acres in size — nearly 60,000 square feet — roughly two-thirds the size of Gramercy Park. (Lowline)